If Joe Root wins the toss before the Ashes Test at Edgbaston on August 1 this year, he will have a big say in what England do next. Reasonably enough. He is the captain.
But that was not quite the way of it when one of Root’s predecessors, Mike Denness, led England in the Ashes opener at Edgbaston in 1975.
The series opened in Birmingham five months after England returned from Australia battered and bruised, psychologically, from a 4-1 defeat, and physically, from a barrage by fast bowlers Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson.
"Thommo never said anything and Lillee would just ‘f and blind’ a bit but most of the chirp came from behind the wicket. Rodney Marsh would keep telling you that was the fastest ball he’d ever taken."
Warwickshire batsman Dennis Amiss had been in the top order suffering on that tour. And come July at Edgbaston, Amiss was in a top order which showed just one change from the last Test down under – debutant Graham Gooch replaced veteran Colin Cowdrey – as it was sent back into the firing line.
England were fragile so, to their delight, Denness won the toss. The delight did not last long.
“It looked a typical Edgbaston wicket where if you can get past lunch without too much damage you can get a good score,” recalls Amiss. “It was an uncovered wicket and we saw that there was some rain forecast, so we all said to Mike ‘we’ve got to bat.’
“We’d just been battered by Lillee and Thomson in Australia so if it was a flat deck to start perhaps we could get some runs and some confidence back and then bowl on a wet wicket.
“They went out to toss and Mike came back in and said ‘they’re batting.’ I said ‘oh, we lost the toss then’ and he said ‘no, we won it.’ We couldn’t believe the decision. It turned out that Alec Bedser, the chairman of selectors, had told him we had to bowl first.
“So Australia batted and got a good score and then, sure enough, it rained and we batted on a wet pitch and the ball was taking pieces out of it. That puts doubt in batsmen’s minds and we already had enough of that from our experiences down under.”
The script advanced exactly as Amiss and his team-mates had envisaged – only the wrong way round. Australia scored a solid 359 and then, after the rain, skittled England for 101 and 173 with Lillee, Thomson and Max Walker sharing 19 wickets.
It all amounted to further punishment for England, enjoyed least of all by Gooch who bagged a pair on his debut. Amiss, too was in the wars, scoring four and five, the latter an innings of two halves, built either side of retiring hurt after he ducked into a short ball from Lillee.
Lillee and Thomson showed all their familiar hostility out on the field during the match – yet were perfectly obliging guests off it. It was Amiss’s benefit season and, in a notable case of ‘it wouldn’t happen today,’ he held a benefit event on the third night of the Test!
“On the Saturday I had a Kangaroo Ball at the Grand Hotel in Birmingham,” he said. “All the Aussies came and some of the England players. I don’t think some of the England hierarchy were too pleased but it was the rest day next day.
“Things were quite convivial off the field in those days. The batting side always went into the fielding side’s dressing room for a drink after close of play. In Australia that wasn’t always an easy thing to do and one or two of our batters weren’t too keen to go and have a drink with these blokes who had just been trying to knock out blocks off.
“Rather than go in and say ‘well bowled Dennis, thanks for trying to knock my block off all day’ I used to chat to the batsmen. I got on really well with Greg Chappell, Dougie Walters and Ross Edwards.”
Although immensely aggressive with the ball, however, one thing that Aussie generation never stooped to, in Amiss’s experience, was sledging.
“They never gave me any verbals though I was probably never there long enough!” he said Amiss. “Thommo never said anything and Lillee would just ‘f and blind’ a bit but most of the chirp came from behind the wicket. Rodney Marsh would keep telling you that was the fastest ball he’d ever taken.
“If you are playing well you are in your bubble so all that doesn’t worry you at all. When you are not playing so well and not scoring runs it can get to you a bit, like it did on the 74/75 tour.”
It remains to be see how convivial this summer’s Edgbaston Ashes Test will be on the field, though it’s safe to say the teams will not be attending a benefit event after the third day. It will certainly be a good-natured affair in the stands, however, with the Hollies Stand in full cry – a backdrop which can only help England, believes Amiss.
“Edgbaston had always been special like that,” he said. “The crowd is very partisan and supportive and the Hollies Stand is amazing. When the cricket is slow there is always something going on there. I remember when Aaron Finch misfielded one and they were getting on his back, it was great fun. He reversed towards them and they were all making the reversing-vehicle noise – it brought the house down. Aaron joined in too – that’s the great thing about the Hollies Stand, it’s noisy but good-humoured.”
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